Dispatches from Istanbul: An Escape from the City

I recently bought an analogue camera and have been learning (slowly) to take photos. This marks my first entry in what I hope will be a continuing combination of sharing stories and photos.

Some of the biggest difficulties I have with living in Istanbul are the all-encompassing mass of concrete, the lack of green spaces and the problem it is to escape. Being able to get out of the city and go camping, which seems like it should be so easy to do, ends up being a serious project. Apart from the problems that emerge around arranging schedules and a car, the city has almost a gravitational force that seems to suck everything in and make it impossible to break free. It’s refreshing to be able to feel soil under your feet, to breathe fresh air, to hear insects and birds, to not hear car horns or neighbor’s arguments, to cook over a fire, and to sit and watch the stars at night. I feel it puts me more in touch with what it means to be human.

Friends of mine invited me a few weeks ago to go camping. We’d initially planned to leave early Saturday morning and drive to a national forest in Bolu, a town 3 hours east of Istanbul, but C was working until noon on Saturday so we decided to camp somewhere closer to Istanbul. The trip to Bolu will have to wait until warmer weather now, as the national forest we”d planned on going to is inaccessible without a 4×4 in the winter months.

We met around noon and packed the car. All of us had had the same idea and brought scraps from what we’d had in our fridges. A feast was awaiting us. We set off and along the way stopped to pick up some missing elements, meatballs bread and beer, and in the tiny village where we’d be camping, we bought some village eggs from a shack on the side of the road and asked for directions.

Our destination was the Omerli dam, just about an hour’s drive from Kadikoy, our departure point and the district where I live. It wasn’t crowded but there were probably about six or seven other groups scattered about within sight. We walked around the lake for a bit, looking for an appropriate place to set up camp both out of the wind and away from people. We found some relatively even ground with minimal garbage scattered about, pitched the tents, and C and I set off in search of firewood.

I had found my tent in the back storage room of my place two apartments ago. A friend of mine had got married and moved into a more comfortable space, vacating his bachelor pad. There was a small, scary room in the back that had an old mattress and a number of random bits and bobs discarded on the floor. Living in a furnished apartment comes with the uncertainty about whether you can throw anything out, which results in living with a bunch of random junk that’s been accumulating for as long as the landowner has been renting the place out. One day I plucked up my courage and tried to clean the room, and found a three person tent from some time in the past 20 years or so. Since moving out of that apartment I have taken it camping a few times, as well as used it as my bedroom for four months in my new flat while I slowly furnished the place. It’s the best free tent I’ve ever had.

The water level in the dam had receded quite a bit over the previous months, leaving a 50 meter stretch of hard-packed, uneven mud along the shore. Firewood looked pretty scarce, but we had seen another Istanbul escapee loaded with a large bundle coming from the same direction, so we pressed on. C was adamant about dragging a massive stump back to the fire, as we needed something big to burn all night, as most of what we had found was just little sticks. I thought it was more trouble than it was worth, and insisted on continuing the search. Eventually I found a good cluster of medium-sized sticks that had washed up into the bushes and we each hauled massive loads back to the campsite where M had unloaded the car and was waiting for us.

One reason why I love camping is because it means I get to Use my Gear. I am a consumer (perhaps grudgingly so), and am into fashion, albeit in my own way. I like to have one thing and then use it forever, thrashing it until there is no life left in it, and only then replacing it. I think it’s a mixture of the appeal of the Rugged North American Minimalist Woodsman plus obsessive compulsive traits.

The problem with living in the city though is that I have my heavy duty jeans and boots and jackets that I wear all the time but I never get to thrash. They are languishing in a world of concrete, crying out to be used, abused and destroyed in the forest! This means that on the rare occasion I do get out in nature I tend to get excited about thrashing my stuff and tend to go a bit over the top when it comes to things like collecting firewood and breaking sticks for the fire.

After we had enough firewood for the evening we got started on our meal and getting the fire ready to cook it and entertain us for the evening. Meatballs and veggies went on the grill over the fire and we had a deluxe salad, and we cracked the first bottle of wine and sat down to digest our meal and watch the sunset.

As our sticks for our blazing fire started disappearing I ventured out into the darkness with my headlamp (another device that doesn’t get to be used properly very often). It was refreshing to go for a walk in the dark, outside of the city, listening to the wind and looking at the stars. I reflected about the irony of how relieving it felt to get out of the city and go camping, how necessary it felt, but that our destination was a trash strewn dried up dam that supported the city which we had (barely) escaped. I stomped my way over the uneven mud in search of sticks and eventually found a trove of them beyond our first find. I wrapped up the oversized, uneven bundle in my jacket and hoisted it on my back and trudged back to the fire, proud of myself for the thrashing I was giving my jacket. M and C applauded my efforts and I began stomping on the larger sticks with great exuberance. When this pile of sticks started to disappear I ventured out once again.

The next morning C and M were up before me and had the fire relit and were just getting ready to cook breakfast as I emerged from my tent. For some reason I hurt all over. Oh yeah, I remembered, our bonfire coming back to me, as well as the hauling and excited stick breaking. We had enough firewood to cook our breakfast and then build up another roaring fire as we slowly accustomed ourselves to the idea of breaking camp, loading the car and driving back to the city.

On the drive back I suggested driving to Anadolu Feneri, the lighthouse on the Asian shore of the Black Sea and the Bosphorus. Alas, M lives deep in the bowels of the European side of the city and had three hours of Sunday traffic to sit through and wanted to try to avoid most of it. Gozleme! I then suggested, sure that there must be a place on the side of the road where we could sit and eat and be in the trees a bit more before descending again into the concrete. You must be joking, my friends responded, how can you be hungry after our dinner and breakfast? No, I’m not hungry, I replied, I just want to delay our return. Unfortunately, though, the Omerli dam isn’t far enough outside of the city for there to be many Gozleme places scattered about the highway, and no sooner had I mentioned it than we were back in the concrete jungle.

After unloading the car at C’s flat and a snack and some coffee, we went our separate ways, each adjusting back into city life. We’d only been gone for 30 hours but it was enough to be able to feel that this much madness is not normal. I look forward to my next escape.

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